I don’t know what your garden’s like at the moment, if you have one, but if it is anything like mine, over this last week or so it will have just exploded with life. All that rain, followed by long-awaited warmth has meant that everything is growing, fast, and in every direction at once. It always seems to catch me out when it does this, though it happens every year. One minute you are impatiently waiting for plants to creep into growth, and the next minute you are engulfed in greenery. Quite a lot of it is weeds, of course - let’s face it, they didn’t get to be where they are by hanging back politely – but that’s how it is, “life in all its fullness” to quote the words of Jesus, whether you want it or not.
Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the moment when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ disciples propelling them out into the world with the message of his love. In a way, the images Luke uses to describe this event remind me of that exuberant explosion in the garden. He talks of wind and flames, things that are by their nature uncontrollable, violent, disturbing and overwhelming, with a life of their own. Before they know what is happening, the disciples find themselves out on the streets proclaiming the good news in languages which they don’t understand. Their words are recognised instantly by the polyglot crowd in Jerusalem, though, the Parthians, Medes, Elamites and all the rest. They have come all the way from their homes to this place which seems so distant and foreign to them and yet to their surprise here is a God who speaks their own language. In their heart of hearts they had probably thought of God as an Israelite – but no, he is one of them too. They had come as strangers, seekers after truth or just sightseers, but suddenly an experience they thought they were looking at from the outside becomes their experience. God comes home to them and the effect is explosive, changing their lives completely.
These ancient events described in the Bible can seem so strange to us as to make no sense at all. What has all this to do with us? But my experience is that far more people than we might imagine at some time feel the presence of God with them in a way which overwhelms and changes them. They might not see flames or hear a rushing wind. They might not speak in strange languages or understand them, but many people – perhaps most people – at some point in their lives will have had a moment when they have felt touched by something beyond their understanding, moved in ways that they can’t account for. A chance encounter, a poem that strikes home, a piece of music, a loving gesture they weren’t expecting gives them a glimpse of some deeper reality beneath the surface of their lives, and perhaps gives them the strength and courage to do something which they thought was quite impossible.
I watched a television programme this week called Hitler’s Children 1. It was about the children and grandchildren of some of the most notorious Nazi war criminals, people whose whole lives had been blighted, through no fault of their own, by the surnames they bore. One of them, Rainer Hoess, was the grandson of the commandant of Auschwitz. His father, just a child at the time, had grown up in a villa on the other side of the wall from the camp, but the family photos were full of happy images of the children playing in the garden there, no hint of the horrors taking place over the wall. Rainer decided that he needed to visit the camp, though he was clearly very anxious about it. What would happen if people recognised a family likeness? How would he be received? As it turned out, he was there at the same time as a group from an Israeli high school, and bravely he agreed to talk to the young people. As he struggled to express his sorrow, and the guilt he felt at what his grandfather had done, an elderly man called out from the crowd. He was a survivor of the camp – one of few left now. Could he come out, he asked – why? - because he wanted to shake Rainer’s hand? As the two of them embraced, the survivor explained that he’d spent his life visiting schools in his town in Germany, talking to the young people there about what had happened to him. He wanted to say to Rainer the same thing as he said to them. “You weren’t there. You didn’t do it…” It was a profound and moving moment to watch, but for Rainer, as he dissolved into tears, it was absolutely transformative. It lifted a lifetime of guilt, guilt which had never been rightly his of course, and afterwards he said that he had felt for the first time a profound sense of inner joy. It was utterly unplanned, unsought and unexpected, a moment of complete grace when love broke through the barriers that awful history had built, and it spilled out to those who witnessed it as well as into the lives of these two men. Love and forgiveness are possible, it said, even in these circumstances. We can be infinitely more and better than we think.
It might not seem that such a story has anything to do with Pentecost – there was no rushing wind, no speaking in tongues, no mention of God at all – but it seems to me that it captured the essence of what this feast is all about, the moment when we find ourselves opened up to power beyond our power, when a peace that passes our understanding comes to rest in our lives. And like many of those moments when we feel ourselves to have been touched by the Spirit of God, it was also something which couldn’t be predicted, controlled or contained.
What those visitors to Jerusalem found on the Day of Pentecost was that God wasn’t the property of the Jewish people, to be doled out in carefully measured doses to those who met their criteria of righteousness. They didn’t have to become something other than they were in order to know God and be accepted by him. They thought they had come as strangers to visit God in his Jewish Temple, but actually he had been with them all along, at home in their native land, speaking their native language, just as much present in their lives and customs as in those of the Jewish people. That lesson was crucially important for the early Church which was a mixture of Jew and Gentile, but it is just as important for us today.
God is no respecter of human boundaries, says this story of Pentecost. He is a free-range God. You can’t cage him, and if you think you’ve managed to then what you have in your tidy box is not God at all. You can’t tell him what to do or where to go or who to associate with. The Spirit of God is like the wind, says Jesus, which “blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3.8) One of the delights of ministry is that I find I come across God at work in all sorts of unexpected contexts, in people who have never set foot in a church, in people who have no intention of setting foot in a church, in people of other faiths and of none. Children who haven’t got the language to describe what they have experienced tell me things of great depth as we sit in the school quiet garden. People on buses and trains talk about their deepest longings and their deepest joys. Sometimes people ask for baptism quite out of the blue; something has made them realise that there is more to life than meets the eye and they need to affirm that. They may have little or no idea what the Church thinks baptism is all about – they just know they need to do it, to acknowledge the divine possibilities in their lives. People are promted by the Spirit, moved by the Spirit, called by the Spirit constantly.
The medieval Sufi poet Rumi – a Persian Muslim - wrote of this moment when we are drawn by a call like that, an experience beyond our understanding. Among other images, he likens it to a hunting bird summoned back to his master by a distant signal.
Sometimes you hear a voice
through the door calling you, as fish out of
water hear the waves or a hunting falcon
hears the drum’s “come back”.
This turning toward what you deeply love
saves you. 2
Rumi may have been from a different faith and culture, but the Spirit, which blows where it wills, had clearly blown through his life too. Jesus says in our Gospel reading that the Spirit of Truth calls us into truth. St Paul says that all creation groans for the touch of God’s love (Romans 8.22). We may call this experience by many different names, understand it in many different ways, but the sense of longing is the same, and we know it when we find it. “Turning toward what you deeply love saves you.”
In our hymns and prayers for Pentecost we often ask God’s Spirit to come to us. “Breathe on me, breath of God.” “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us” we ask, but good though it is to issue the invitation, the hallmark of the Spirit is that we can’t make him come to us by order, and we don’t need to. He is here already, calling to us in our deepest loves and longings. It may be a call to forgiveness, to healing, to reconciliation, as it was for Rainer Hoess. It may be a call to embark on a journey or make a commitment. It may be a call simply to learn to rest in God. It may come through familiar channels – the words of the Bible, a hymn or a prayer. But it may also come from way outside the Church and in some form that takes us utterly by surprise. When we find it, though, however strange a form it takes, it will also feel like coming home, like the falcon responding to the drum’s signal or the fish slipping into the water again, coming home to the God who dwells at the heart of all things.
1. Hitler’s Children BBC Two www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01j10j3
2. [Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, (from “Saved by a Poem” by Kim Rosen)]